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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 15, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Sloppy Joes, SnipURL, Instrumental Pop, Ticket

The other day I got a hankering for sloppy joes.

In our house, as long as we've been a family, that has meant stir-frying some loose hamburger meat, pouring off the grease, and adding it to a can of ManWich brand sloppy joe sauce, made by ConAgra Foods. When our older kids were little, ManWich was a regular part of our diet -- not weekly, but every few months.

Gradually, over the years, we got out of the habit. Mainly because my wife lost her taste for ground beef long ago. It began on family car trips. We'd stop at McDonald's, because no matter where you go, you know there'll be a McDonald's, you know the basic level of quality and cleanliness, and the kids will already know what they want to order. Better McDonald's than some of the hideous greasy spoons we've walked out of over the years.

But my wife stopped ordering burgers. If they hadn't had salads at McDonald's, she'd have fasted.

Soon we stopped making hamburgers at home. (Though hot dogs were still OK -- as long as they were Hebrew National brand or, in recent years, organic.)

We stopped at fewer and fewer fast food joints on the road. We fixed fewer and fewer dishes at home that involved ground beef. That meant that my brilliant meat loaf is really for me alone -- every couple of years I mix up a loaf, bake it, put it in the fridge, and eat it cold on sandwiches for a week until it's gone.

And ManWich stopped being served, along with all the other ground beef dishes.

But the other day, I got that hankering for sloppy joes.

So in the grocery store, we did what we usually do these days -- we checked the ingredient list. You know that they list them in the order of their proportion -- the largest-quantity ingredient first. Well, guess what the second listed ingredient of ManWich is?

High fructose corn syrup.

You know, the substance that seems to satisfy our sweet tooth, but never signals our brain that we've had enough. The drug that induces us to keep eating more and more and more and more.

We don't buy things with high fructose corn syrup anymore. And that meant ManWich was off the list.

Here's the thing -- ManWich didn't invent the sloppy joe. They just cornered the market because it was so convenient to open a can and plop it in a pan, add the de-greased meat, and voila: dinner.

We have to remember that there was a reason why we changed our cooking habits over the years, as more and more prepared foods reached the market. For most of human history, meals involved locally-produced foods and lots of time and work in preparation. If you had stored foods, it was because you had smoked it or dried it or kept it in a spring house yourself -- as part of that time-consuming food preparation (not to mention mere survival).

In our century, though, railroads and canned goods transformed the way we ate. Food prepared in distant places could be delivered to stores near us -- and it was cheaper and faster than spending hours duplicating the process out of fresh ingredients, if we could even get fresh ingredients where we lived.

Freezing food added enormously to the variety we could buy in the store, though canned goods continued to be popular. And now, we get an amazing selection of fresh fruits and vegetables all year, transported from climates where they're in season.

Much of this transition was in my lifetime. I remember sloppy joes before ManWich. I remember cooking up batches myself, or helping Mom do it. But we didn't do it often, because it took a lot of work -- chopping things, cooking for hours, stirring on the stovetop. Sloppy joes were rarely worth the effort, compared to just slapping the ground beef onto a grill or griddle and having burgers.

The only time you had to have sloppy joes was when you were serving dozens and dozens of people. Then you'd make a huge batch. By regulating the portion size, you could stretch your ground beef to fill a lot of buns -- and you didn't have to mess with all the condiments that go with a good burger. You traded preparation time for serving simplicity.

At home, with more and more moms working at paying jobs, there simply wasn't time to prepare fresh sloppy joes.

Well, guess what? My wife loves me, and I had expressed a yearning for sloppy joes, so when ManWich turned out to be ineligible for inclusion on the Card family menu, my wife and a good friend went on the internet in search of a sloppy joe recipe and picked the one that sounded best.

We had it for dinner and you know what? ManWich doesn't hold a candle to it. Who needs high fructose corn syrup when you can have fresh ingredients? All it took was ... time.

I'm not going to give you the recipe -- I'm going to send you where they found it, at allrecipes.com, where you can find it by searching for Emily's Famous Sloppy Joes. Or you can just type in (or, online, paste in) this short URL I created: http://snipurl.com/sloppyjoe

They claim that it serves eight. But with the size bun we were using, we made them nice and thick and still had enough to make twelve.

Now, making twelve sloppy joes does not mean that you can serve twelve people. You have to understand that I'm going to be eating three or four myself, so if I'm on your guest list, you need to take that into account. And if you use a larger bun, you'll make fewer joes.

Also, we couldn't leave the recipe alone. Even though it was delicious exactly as it came from the recipe, it still cried out for some worcestershire sauce (pronounced, if you care but didn't already know, "WOO-stir-sher"). You are free to fix it either way.

There were no leftovers. Even though, when the last bun had been filled, there was still a bit of sloppy joe left in the bowl, somebody ate it by spoon and could only barely be restrained from licking the bowl.

*

You'll notice that for the short-version internet address leading to that recipe I did not use TinyURL.com. I could have, of course, but a reader had recently contacted us with the information that SnipURL.com was better. I agree completely -- it's my URL-shortener of choice now.

Why? TinyURL gives you a short address consisting of a random string of characters. It's not long, but it also makes no sense and is not memorable. But at SnipURL, you can make your own label for your short URL, as I did with snipurl.com/sloppyjoe.

I suppose that if somebody else had already used the label "sloppyjoe" I would have had to find a different one, but my solution would have been easy enough: I'd just put OSC or Orson on the front, which would make sense because you'd be getting the address from my column.

The result is an address that is easily remembered. You don't even have to write it down, as long as you can remember SnipURL.com (pronounce it Snip U R L or SNIP-url, as you prefer) and then whatever tag I assigned to it.

*

A couple of weeks ago I went on a musical nostalgia binge. You won't believe what a binge. I'm going to spread the reviews over several weeks. This week I'm just going to mention the old pop instrumentals from when I was growing up.

These grew out of the big band tradition. In my parents' generation, the bands weren't just backup to the singer; on the contrary, the bands were the headliners, and the singers would come and go.

Well, that began to change in the 40s and 50s, and as rock and roll transformed the whole record industry, those bands became "orchestras" and gradually their records became almost, but not quite, novelties.

Mantovani ("The Moulin Rouge Theme").

Henry Mancini ("Baby Elephant Walk," "Days of Wine and Roses").

Paul Mauriat ("Love Is Blue").

Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (lots of light, bouncy brass tunes).

Ferrante and Teicher ("Theme from The Apartment").

Lawrence Welk ("Calcutta").

Bert Kaempfert ("Swingin' Safari").

Percy Faith ("Theme from A Summer Place").

Nelson Riddle ("Volare").

Roger Williams ("Autumn Leaves").

David Rose ("The Stripper").

Michel Legrand ("The Summer Knows").

Ray Conniff ("Somewhere My Love").

The Ventures ("Walk -- Don't Run").

And there were one-shot "groups" like The Tornados, with their worldwide smash hit "Telstar." (The group was really a Brit named Joe Meek, who never enjoyed any royalties for the song because of a specious lawsuit by a French composer claiming plagiarism; the suit ended entirely in Meek's favor, but he had died before his royalties were finally released by the court).

All of these bands, orchestras, and instrumental groups had huge hit records that got long stretches of radio air play.

I file them in my MP3 collection under "instrumental pop." My memory of them, as a kid, was that many of them were "beautiful music." That's because I was young and inexperienced. I was also listening to them on AM radio through crummy speakers.

Even then, though, I knew there was a difference between those radio pop instrumentals and the classical music that was part of our regular listening. Records were expensive then, as was good stereo equipment, but my parents bought a used built-into-a-cabinet stereo with decent speakers, and bought collections of classical music that I came to love. Mostly the Russian romantics, but that's not a bad entry point to classical music -- Scheherazade is inextricably tied up with memories of my childhood.

So I knew the difference between good compositions with full orchestration and the pop instrumentals. But at that age, I didn't really care. Ferrante and Teicher did really cool stuff on the piano. Ray Conniff and Herb Alpert and David Rose hits were bouncy and fun, but Mantovani and Michel Legrand and Roger Williams could be dreamy and beautiful.

Some of this music is still quite enjoyable. Mostly for the nostalgia, though -- because they were part of my childhood.

Still, it says something about the musical taste of that generation that even as the Elvis and the Beatles were dominating the airwaves, instrumental music was also an important part of our radio listening.

Those days are over! A lot of what's on the radio isn't even music.

I know, that's the standard complaint of the older generation. But when snobs complained back in the sixties that Mancini's and Ferrante and Teicher's and Ray Conniff's stuff "wasn't music," little did they know how much farther things could sink, until today melody and harmony are virtually lost arts on some radio formats.

Mancini, a very good pop composer, is the best of them. And even though most of these pieces are thinly orchestrated, obvious, and/or overwrought, they are still capable of giving pleasure to a listener. It's not a crime to create music that's pretty or fun without achieving the standards of "serious music."

And, for people my age, it's a trip down memory lane.

*

Ticket to Ride is one of the great board games. But somebody decided to try to make it into a card game, too.

How do you take a map-centered game and play it without a map?

The answer is: you don't. If you want the map, play the board game!

But the card game is also really good. It's also a little bit hard to learn, because it is truly a new card-game paradigm. It's not just rummy or hearts with train-car cards.

The idea is that you draw "route cards" that assign you to put together certain combinations of train-car cards. You'll acquire those cards exactly the way you do in the board game Ticket to Ride. But to play them, instead of putting down cars on the board, you lay down your train-car cards in a "train yard" in front of you.

Here is where the game gets most complicated -- but also most fun. You see, one of the challenges in the board game is that you are racing with the other players to try to get certain routes, and they can really mess you up by taking a route you need.

In the card game, the same effect is achieved by the fact that cards sitting in your train yard can be wiped out by a player who lays down a longer train of that color in his yard; and you can't put down any train-car of a color that somebody else has in their yard unless you are going to lay down more of that color.

So there's constant strategy about the interplay between your yard and other players' yards. But in each turn, you get to take one train-car of each color and put it "on the tracks," meaning it's no longer in danger from the other players.

The biggest challenge is that officially, unless you're a novice or a child, you can't look at your "on the tracks" cards once they're put down, so that at the end of the game you can have the rude surprise of realizing that you hadn't gotten the green cards after all, and so three of your routes don't work.

Frankly, I think adding a memory-test component to the game is no fun -- not for us old people with failing memories, and not to the younger ones who prefer a game that is fun, not work. Why not allow checking that stack? So we've changed the rule in our house, and you can look at your "on the tracks" cards all you want.

Still ... how often will we play this game? Here's my guess: At home, at the beach, anywhere we drive to, we'll have the board game with us. But if we fly somewhere, we might just take the card game along, because it's smaller and fits in the luggage more easily.

It's a terrific, though tricky-to-learn, card game. But to us who already loved the board game, it's the board game we enjoy more.


Comment from Christopher M. Palmer

I'm sure you'll be regaled with dozens of Sloppy Joe recipes and I hate to bother you or add to the mix, but here is the alternative that made us stop making ground-beef sloppy joes (depending on your tolerance for spicy foods)...

Hot Italian Sausage "Sloppy Joes" (very general recipe)

Remove the casings from hot Italian sausage links, chop them up, and brown them well until they are the consistency of browned ground beef. You can add chopped garlic as well at this point. Drain the grease (or most of the grease, at least), then add a few cans of tomato sauce (the Hunt's brand with garlic and basil works well). You can also add some dried basil and oregano if desired and ground red pepper if you want them really spicy. Let the sauce simmer for a while until it is about the consistency of "sloppy joe" filling.

Take a large loaf (or two) of crusty French (or, to be a purist, Italian) bread, cut it lengthwise down the center (big sandwich style), then cut the loaf into four or five sections about 4-6" long. On a baking sheet, spoon the Italian sausage onto the bottom of each sandwich, top with a few coarsely chopped roasted red peppers (from a jar or roast your own), and a generous amount of mozzarella cheese (shredded or sliced). Leave the tops of each sandwich face up beside the bottoms and put into a hot oven until the cheese melts and the bread gets toasty, then turn on the broiler to lightly brown the cheese and toast the bread. Take them out, match tops to bottoms, and serve.


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